Now and then, a new technical method of representing the world comes to the fore -- and a door swings open in art. The development of oil paints, for example, gave artists a greater opportunity to convey movement, light, and shadow than had tempera painting; photography, of course, provided artists with a new mirror to hold up to the world. Today, digital technology is stimulating similar dreams of unexplored territory. In BitStreams, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the curator Lawrence Rinder, working with Debra Singer, has assembled a survey of art that depends upon the new technology. The show is provocative, exploratory, and entertaining -- with enough technical bells and whistles to excite the child within -- but, oddly enough, does not seem surprisingly new. It is early yet. Digital art is still extending familiar traditions in photography, painting, sculpture, Dada, and installation art -- much as automobiles once resembled buggies, and the first photographs often reflected the conventions of painting.
Any kid with a computer becomes a king -- as does any artist. The digital revolution grants artists absolute power over the world of appearances. They can control, make, mix, and manipulate images at will. They can even draw if they want to. (A mouse-made line has a particular character that's unlike a hand-drawn line.) Today, the most common use of digital technology occurs in still photography. Many photographers like to retool photographs without revealing the sleight-of-hand. The Whitney show, however, highlights a more overt interference with imagery. In Me Kissing Vinoodh (Passionately), for example, Inez van Lamsweerde began with a photograph of a deep kiss between her and her husband -- and then digitally razored him out of the picture. The empty imprint of his nose and mouth create a sharp cut across her face. Romantic love and its hungers, this picture implies, can become a devouring and strangely vacuous nightmare, concealing and distorting both our minds and our bodies.
Much of the promise of digital art lies in creating a new sense of movement, one with a contemporary syncopation. Some artists use the computer to make the image move on the wall, but not in the manner of a filmmaker. Instead, they seem to awaken painting, sculpture, and photography from their long, still dream. Jeremy Blake, an artist working in the tradition of geometric abstraction, is one such Pygmalion. In Station to Station, 2000-01, he has used a grid created by lockers in a train station as a kind of visual tuning fork; then, on five different screens, he has played with colors and geometric shapes to create a dreamy sensation of trainlike passage between different urban and suburban environments. An artist named P. Mutt -- now, there's a name with a fine Duchampian pedigree -- has added movement to the severe geometries of modernism. In a darkened room of blacks and whites, Mutt has placed a large screen on which reduced minimal forms slowly, in a contemplative manner, move in and out of the light. Nearby, if you look through a small indentation in the wall, you will see (and softly hear) rectangles flying about like energetic atoms. Malevich on speed.
The figure, too, flickers. In one image, Jim Campbell depicts a running and stumbling man created by patterns within a grid of blinking red lights; in another, he makes a portrait of a celebrated engineer in which the man's face seems to emerge from and subside into a blur of what geeks call "pixelated noise." At times, the desire to shake up the figure reminds me of the way Eadweard Muybridge once redefined movement by slowing it down through a succession of stills. The new technology permits an analysis -- and an exposure -- of movements that the eye cannot ordinarily catch. Paul Pfeiffer has created an endlessly repeating tape loop in which a basketball hurls through the air both more slowly and more quickly than we are accustomed to seeing. Passed among the hands of NBA players, it becomes a magical, spinning orb that appears to have a purpose of its own.
The power of the computer particularly invites fantasy -- and enables artists to render dreams well beyond the capacity of a brush or pencil to describe. Given the limitless opportunities for unexpected and fantastic combinations, many digital artists have a strong surrealist bent. Today, with the help of the computer, they can even turn their imaginings into freestanding, three-dimensional works. Bones have always aroused the mischievous eye of artists. In Skulls 2000, Robert Lazzarini used a computer to twist and elongate the image of a skull in four different ways -- then cast these manipulated images into three-dimensional form. The four skulls recall the anamorphic distortions of earlier art, but here, the illusion also becomes an object. Illusion is our intractable reality.
One section of the show includes pieces by artists who manipulate sounds. (You listen through earphones.) It would be misleading to call what they make music. Instead, they create environments from noise, both inventing new sounds and collecting various honks, hoots, and squawks from their surroundings. The result is an aural image: They work with the mind's ear rather than eye. To take just one example, John Hudak began with the sounds heard around a country pond (such as the buzzing of insects), then digitally distilled that into a kind of pulsing, hypnotic whine. In another section of the show, the organizers highlight interactive displays, in which viewers can play with computers programmed by artists (go to www.whitney.org). In netomat (TM), for example, the artist Maciej Wisniewski invites two viewers to type in different words -- and then, on the walls around them, streams of Internet imagery and sound inspired by the words mix and merge, creating ever-changing juxtapositions and relationships.
It is important to remember that in the end, digital technology is just a tool. I was once upbraided by a musician who heard me talking too enthusiastically about the possibilities provided by new instruments. It is never the technology used -- or even the skill displayed -- that matters in music, he said, but only the sensibility of the artist; he would rather hear a scratchy old 78 recording of a great tub-thumper than a glossily recorded piece by a mediocre artist working on a world-class computer. It is great artists, uncorrupted by the easy power of the computer and its invitations to sloppy, narcissistic indulgence, who will finally make the digital revolution matter in art, and not the technology itself. Our century awaits the creation of a convincing new physical -- and metaphysical -- space that can rival what the Cubists did at the outset of the last century, sometimes with the new techniques of their day, sometimes with the old brushes and paint.
At the Whitney Museum of American Art; through 6/10.